It’s Old Dominion’s Year: Big Hits, Arenas & ‘Just Getting Started’ digital

Even before Old Dominion had an official “team” in place, it was obvious there was something special about the songwriter-driven collective, mostly from Virginia, that formed in Nashville. Not just that they wrote songs, or even that Matthew Ramsey and Trevor Rosen were already delivering hits when they started getting in a van to any bar they could play with their pals and rhythm section Whit Sellers on drums and Geoff Sprung on bass.

It was so early, guitarist/vocalist/songwriter Brad Tursi hadn’t even joined. That would happen in mid-2012.

“As the saying goes, ‘It starts with a song,’” says Nate Ritches, now OD’s responsible agent at Wasserman Music. Starting out, he was an in-house agent, given a shot at Morris Higham. Like the band, he intended to make the most of what he had.

“We took that writing pedigree and put it to work in the live space. That’s all we had to sell in the beginning. And mind you, we’re talking a Craig Morgan, a Randy Rogers Band and Chris Young, but that was the narrative to separate them from the pack. Their talent was undeniable: the musicianship and love they delivered from that stage even at the very earliest shows caught [people’s] attention.”

Ed Warm, owner of Joe’s on Weed Street and purveyor of Chicago’s legendary Windy City Smoke-Out, laughs thinking about his first shows with Old Dominion. It was Jan. 17, 2012, and the Academy of Country Music Award-winning promoter/bar owner remembers the first of back-to-back plays at the smaller Bub City, followed by opening for Phil Vassar at Joe’s the next night.

“Bub City is a smaller place, like a bar in Nashville,” he says. “I’d put them in there because they had strong references. On the 18th they opened for Phil, because Tommy Garris, who was Phil’s road manager, was one of the people who turned me on to them.

“You saw the talent they had. You’ve got real songwriters onstage; they’re playing these songs they’d been saving for themselves, but they were playing the songs they’d written for others – and you could hear the quality. Matthew’s so undeniable; he’s got this quiet confidence, and Trevor’s his compadre, so the chemistry felt very natural, like they were your friends, too.

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PLAYING TO (AND ON) THE CROWD: Old Dominion’s Matthew Ramsey and Brad Tursi jump into the crowd while performing at London’s O2 Shepherd’s Bush Empire, (originally built in 1903) for the band’s “Happy Endings Tour” on Nov. 4, 2018. (Courtesy Old Dominion)

“I don’t know if they knew where it was going, but they knew they had to put themselves out there to find out.”

A decade later, Old Dominion’s built one of the strongest fan bases and touring businesses in modern country. Beyond being the only act to tour five times with eight-time Entertainer of the Year Kenny Chesney, the band focused on regular trips to the UK and Europe (next year will be their fifth) and Australia (twice), headlining festivals and working to consolidate secondary as well as major markets.

Old Dominion’s manager Clint Higham remembers when he first signed the fledgling band to Morris Higham Management “I knew in my marrow these guys were destined for greatness as one of the best country bands to ever grace the format,” he says. “When you see them live – and this is what we’ve always focused on – they’re also definitive entertainers, period.

For Will Hitchcock, Old Dominion’s day-to-day manager, he realized the band was going to be much bigger than most successful groups that win awards and have chart-toppers, happened in March 2019.  “Standing on the side of a stage at (Omaha’s) sold-out CenturyLink Center, it hit me. There were over 13,000 people in there, all singing along with them to every word of their songs. It was incredible hearing all those voices on these songs. I remember we all looked at each other, and went, ‘WOW!,’ because this thing we’d all believed in, all the way back to the beginning, was happening right before our eyes.”

More than happening, actually. Old Dominion’s earned $15 million so far from tickets on their “No Bad Vibes Tour,” which kicked off at the beginning of 2023. Set to continue into 2024, it’s clearly taking the band to the next level. From the Jan. 19 tour opening through the end of July, they’ve played for more than 206,000 at 29 venues.

Those songs – and the way fans identify with the band almost as friends – played a massive role in the steady growth they’ve experienced. Taylor Lindsey, Sony Nashville’s Sr. Vice President of A&R who’s worked with the band across several albums, says, “Going all the way back to their first showcase at 12th & Porter, we knew they were different because while they were all credited as songwriters, they were also solid musicians. Starting out as dreamers and buddies, you could feel the fun they were having, but also their voice as ‘a band.’ Even their happy, up-tempo songs can make you think without realizing it.

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LIVE WIRES & CHART TOPPERS: Old Dominion, friends who started out as a group of aspiring songwriters in Nashville, formed a collective in 2007 to showcase their songs. Sixteen years later, they’re touring arenas and have nine No. 1 hits and counting. From left: Geoff Sprung, Trevor Rosen, Brad Tursi, Matthew Ramsey, and Whit Sellers. (Portrait by Mason Allen/ Courtesy Old Dominion)

“Add the sense of deep brotherhood that seeps out of them because of their connection in the music, their passion for the music has this energy that the fans want to be part of. So while they have hit songs, they’re also hit songs that really say something. No other act really has that.”

“There is the self-awareness that we are the earworm farmers,” jokes Ramsey, when asked about Lindsey’s quote. “We know we can throw in everything that will catch your ear without sounding confusing. But we also do want it to mean something. Meaning something and feeling good don’t have to be mutually exclusive, do they?

“People’s lives are hard. We’ve learned we might provide a little relief on a not great day – and maybe bump it up a little on a good one. It’s been crazy, though. Our first album was a tornado of making the record, then ‘Hey! You have 250 shows.’ It was four days to get that done.

“We finished our second album the same way: went to Dallas to play a Super Bowl party for the Patriots, got on a jet and landed at 4 a.m. to go to the studio to finish the record.  But it’s the joy of creating this music and putting it out that people hear.

“Out of that we’ve created a lane. We recognized there was a gap [in where country was musically], and we wanted to fill that. Musically, there wasn’t anything like us; maybe there never was. We’re not traditional country. We’re not pop-country. We always think we’re a rock band, and we’re not. But that feeling and intensity was something we’ve all had and loved.

“Maybe because we’re all songwriters at heart, we’ve learned that technically, we’re not the best players, but we know how to serve these songs because we wrote them. Our technical ability – from the moment we write, then record, then take it onstage or put it on the radio – is the thing that’s not going to let it get watered down. Obviously, we’ve gotten better over hundreds and hundreds of shows; that’s intense practice.

“But at the end of the day, what we do is ultimately the product of who we five are, but even more who we are when we’re all together as one. Over the course of our career, I think that’s something that’s been refined – that the fans have responded to.”

Ramsey was named ASCAP’s 2017 Artist-Songwriter of the Year. Old Dominion’s “One Man Band,” written by Ramsey, Rosen, Tursi and Josh Osborne, was 2020’s ASCAP Country Song of the Year and the Academy of Country Music’s Song of the Year Award. Nine No. 1s, plus countless Top 5s, a handful of pop Top 40 crossovers, the music Old Dominion makes seems to have found a sweet spot in the heart of the flyover.

Keith Urban, who had a Top 5 with Tursi co-write “Wild Hearts,” recognizes the freedom in what the band does. He also sees some of that unfettered joy, which is what draws people to cutting the members’ songs.

“OD bring a rare thing at times like this. A feeling of hope and understanding,” says Urban. “I’ve always felt an exhale in their music. And when you meet them you realize why: because the best music is always a true manifest of that artists’ way of feeling and seeing the world.

“These guys exude an easy-going energy and spirit that just feels good to be around.”

That’s why they grabbed the name Chesney tossed out for their 2023-24 concerts: the “No Bad Vibes Tour.” Embodying what they’ve spent a decade trying to build, it set the stage for the next phase of what’s taking them to the highest levels of the touring and entertainment industry.

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BONZAI! Old Dominion are known for their powerful live performances and ability to both rock and deeply connect with fans. Here, Matthew Ramsey (right) takes flight with Trevor Rosen and Geoff Sprung during their C2C performance at Dublin, Ireland’s 3Arena. (Courtesy Old Dominion)

“The rest of this year is 33 major plays,” explains Ritches of the “No Bad Vibes” crescendo.

He notes the diversity of shows Old Dominion plays. “They packed out at Cheyenne Frontier Days. They’re going to the Aspen Jazz Festival in Snowmass, Colorado.

“They’re playing the classics: the Van Andel Arena, the Xcel Energy Center in St. Paul, TD Garden in Boston, the Allstate Arena in Chicago, Yum! Center in Louisville, Bridgestone in Nashville. They’re doing the kind of business that says, ‘We belong here,’ not ‘We want to be here.’ It’s all the result of hard work.”

An intense, almost rock & roll schedule of dates, it’s also the coming of major stardom the pandemic’s touring stoppage had paused. Asking Ritches if there was a highlight from this tour, he doesn’t pause.

“Our two nights at Red Rocks, hands down. It was a strong way to end leg one this year,” he says. “Those two nights combined sold out during the onsale. But the real story was the near $2 million gross over those two shows – and the fact that the platinum lift was the highest ever in terms on percentage of the gross.”

Musically, too, Red Rocks seems a high point for the band. Rosen laughs, saying every night has unforgettable moments. But forced to pick, “At Red Rocks, Edwin McCain joined us for a rendition of ‘The Living Years’ by Mike + The Mechanics. By the end of the song, the whole crowd was singing the chorus with us. I just looked around. I looked at my family who was side stage, at the majestic beauty of the rocks and the sky, at the fans who have made us a part of their lives.

“It felt like the pinnacle of my existence was distilled into this one moment. There were no words.”

Awe is not something many people expect from a group certified 13-times platinum with two additional gold certifications. That idea of not being too cool for the moment is part of what makes their connection to the fans so strong.

Accepting the 2023 Academy of Country Music Group of the Year Award, Ramsey – recovering from an ATV accident that saw him perform several dates seated and walking with a cane rather than cancel on the fans – thanked his bandmates. Then he cited several icons in the room, including Garth Brooks, Dolly Parton and Randy Travis, honored to be in the same conversation.

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YOUR MIX IS FIRE: Award-winning producer Shane McAnally (left) who has worked with Old Dominion since 2014, most recently on their 2023 “Memory Lane EP,” here with the band’s Brad Tursi, Geoff Sprung (background), Matthew Ramsey, Trevor Rosen (background), Justin Niebank (Engineer & Mixer). (Courtesy Old Dominion)

He continued by reaching out to the fans, recognizing the reality surrounding so many, “But I also know that there are people obviously hurting in the world right now, trying to figure out how to make sense of divisiveness and shootings and things like that. … We are so proud to be in a room full of country music fans and to make music for those people, but we’re most proud to make music for people that are hurting right now.”

BOOM! In a business where people either look away or make big, bold statements, Old Dominion create a space to acknowledge the state of the world, say “we see you” and make music to offer comfort in trying times.

“I always keep my head or my heart engaged,” Ramsey says. “But I also remember, ‘This isn’t for me; this is for you, whoever you are.’

“Coming with the knowledge we’re an enhancement to people’s lives really helps. It’s easy to fall into the trap of [thinking] our lives are so important, because of how the (entertainment) business works. But it isn’t true. My therapist taught me when I was in the thick of it, ‘Matthew, you signed up for a life of service.’

“When you come at this from that perspective, everything else is easy.”

When the pandemic had the nation on lockdown, Old Dominion was one of the first acts to play live. They wanted to bring relief and healing to their fans.

Ritches, always up for a puzzle to figure out, was tasked with finding a way to get the band back on the road. He landed on both an innovation and a way to play on Old Dominion’s most obvious strengths. Not only did it give back to the fans, it deepened people’s connection to their actual music.

“They had talked about this ‘Band Behind The Curtain’ concept to do underplays between arena cycles that produced a songwriter-focused show of the hits they’d written for A-list artists,” he recalls. “Thinking about how to use this time, it seemed like the perfect opportunity to bring this back to the band.

“Given casinos are mainly on tribal land, I plotted a run of this concept hitting these properties, who’d always wanted the band but could never afford them. It guaranteed paydays, not our own box office, coming out of the pandemic, where we faced more unknowns than not; it was a chance to test this concept to see if the fans – and the band – liked it; and we were dealing with the only spot in many of the regions we were touring where we could play north of 50 percent capacity.

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NATIONAL TREASURES: Old Dominion played two sold-out performances at Red Rocks in Morrison, Colorado outside Denver which their agent Nate Ritches of Wasserman Music described as “ A strong way to end leg one this year…but the real story was the near two million dollar gross over those two shows.” (Courtesy Old Dominion)

“The guys missed the fans, and they wanted to make sure everyone who wanted to be there could come.”

In many cases, Old Dominion did a weekend takeover and made it an event. For Ritches, the more intimate, almost-unplugged shows became “a branding and marketing blitz as well.”

He explains, “Their tequila partner Cantera Negra took over poker table skin-branding; drink specials were band-centric at all points of beverage distribution; in-room magazines had cover features and stories. When we rolled into these markets and properties, it was built out well beyond just a show on a stage.”

Hitchcock concurs, “COVID taught us: this is where you adapt. Staying connected to the fans was so important to the guys. Of course, keeping the lights on at home for everyone whose livelihood depended on the guys was critical, especially when you’re building a team you want to keep together. And they’d arrived at a place where that’s a piece of their forward momentum.

“They’d had so many ‘go out and rock’ dates, where that’s what people expect, what they’re known for – and what they love – it was hard to do anything else. Thankfully, they had this other idea they’d always talked about, so everyone won.”

Their spontaneity and ability to pivot feeds the fun. On Chesney’s 2022 “Here & Now Tour” stadium run, Old Dominion’s fifth, they continued their tradition of surprise pop-up, two-hour shows the night preceding. Chesney appeared at several, adding another layer of excitement. In the end, it really came down to the fans wanting to get that sweaty, packed-in-a-club moment with their favorite band.

Such a rush for the Chicago pop-up at Joe’s on Weed Street, capacity 800, the fans flooded the sidewalks and streets outside. Warm marvels a year later. “There’s something about this band and their songs. Everybody wants them to win! They play arenas now, but when they popped in last year, it was crazy.

“There’s a relatability to them as guys and their songs, and they give that back to their fans. [When they realized how many people were outside and couldn’t get in] …they got on our rooftop and played four or five songs to those people who’d been standing in the 90-degree heat all day. That was so special.”

Whether their triumphant covers of Foo Fighters’ “Learning To Fly,” Pearl Jam’s “Alive,” Bruce Springsteen’s “Atlantic City,” Tom Petty’s “American Girl,” the Black Keys’ “Gold On The Ceiling,” even Harry Styles’ “As It Was,” their willingness to attempt the shouted request or play the extended “bar show,” this is clearly a band consumed by music. And not just their own, but by people who inspire them, too.

“Somebody said Tom Petty crafts the perfect three-minute pop song, songs that speak to the people,” Warm says. “Old Dominion crafts perfect three-, four-minute country songs the same way.”

“Speaking of Springsteen,” Ramsey, who went alone to “Springsteen on Broadway,” says well into the interview, “that’s a guy who showed me you don’t have to live it verbatim. Just really observe what’s happening, pay attention to the details. The complexities and emotions from your own life can fit in other people’s lives, too, just watch.”

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ABSOLUTELY NO BAD VIBES WHATSOEVER: Peyton Manning, Brad Tursi, Trevor Rosen, Frank Ray (opener/support), Edwin McCain (surprise guest), Matthew Ramsey, Kassi Ashton (opener/support), Greylan James (Opener/Support), Geoff Sprung on May 28 at Colorado’s Red Rocks where the band played two nights.

“None of these guys have to be in a band,” Taylor Lindsey offers. “They could all be successful, award-winning songwriters, staying at home. But these are also five artists who are a band. Every one of them plays such a role in what they do, it feeds them. Seeing how connected they are as musicians, that’s special. No other band has that. It creates an electric show that you just want to be in that moment and experience all of it, to stand up and sing along or cheer.”

“These guys have always been ‘the real deal,’” says Higham. “And we’ve endeavored to build upon their authenticity, their charisma, the fun they genuinely have onstage and musicianship year after year. When you add up everything that’s there, it’s about more than maintaining their trajectory, but letting those things develop their fanbase just through the way they make people feel.”

“With our show, there’s a genuine unscripted element that turns each show into a unique, living, breathing conversation with the fans,” Rosen unabashedly admits. “And that’s a two-way street. Looking into somebody’s eyes who’s singing along? Who’s making a request, or brought a sign? It’s that intimate conversation that injects the show with authenticity and joy.

“And there is a real joy onstage because I love my band and I love our songs; I love getting to play them, plain and simple. We are my favorite band, and that doesn’t feel arrogant to say because whatever contribution I bring to this is easily outweighed by how lucky I feel to be in this band.”

It’s lucky, perhaps, if one thinks about the four vans OD ran til they dropped, countless days where the shower was a bottle of water dumped on one’s head in the parking lot, 250 shows some years and countless visits to radio stations, interviews and “more privates than any act we have,” per Ritches, has allowed them to roll over Malcolm Gladwell’s 10,000 hours concept of mastery multiple times. Of course, when you’re living to play, it’s hardly work. At least, that’s how it sounds when they tell it.